Amanda Shires Strikes Solo Magic On ‘My Piece of Land’ & Talks Family Life With Husband Jason Isbell (INTERVIEW)

As most people can tell you, family life frequently suffers when both parents are working and the needs of a child have to be tended to as well. Amanda Shires found that out quickly when she and husband Jason Isbell gave birth to their first child last year.

Both are highly acclaimed musicians of course. Isbell helms his band the 400 Unit, with whom Shires is a sometime side partner playing fiddle and guitar. However, she also has a successful career, which began at the age of fifteen alongside the Texas Playboys and continued through to a later band, The Thrift Store Cowboys. In the time since she’s released four solo albums — West Coast Timbers, Carrying Lightning and Down Fell the Doves, as well as a duet set with former boyfriend Rod Picott entitled Sew Your Heart With Wires. Now, on the eve of release of a new individual effort My Piece of Land, she finds herself musing about home and, as the child of divorced parents, a stability she never had. Shires recently spoke to us from the home she shares with her husband and child in Nashville on one of the couple’s rare days off.

When you become pregnant, you had to leave the road and spend a lot of time by yourself we would imagine. How did that affect the making of the new album?

I had a lot of time to think and a lot of things to think about. I did things differently this time. I used Dave Cobb to produce my album for the first time, who I had never worked with on my own, but who I had worked with on Jason’s projects before. I already had a dialogue with him, so he was very easy to communicate with. I didn’t learn any of the songs ahead of time. I just put them away and then I went in to play them for Dave and then we’d start recording. I thought that was a really good way to do it because then you’re not already married to arrangements and things, and then you also forget you’re recording, so you just think about the song and it takes away the self-consciousness that you can get when you’re in the studio.

shireslpThis is your fourth solo album.

I tell everybody that it is, but it’s open for debate. My very first record was a fiddle instrumental album that I recorded when I was a side person a long, long time ago. So that one to me doesn’t qualify, because it was before I became a writer. I was in Texas and I didn’t decide to pursue that until I met Billy Joe Shaver and decided to work with him. So when I moved up here, I recorded West Cross Timbers, Carrying Lightening and Down Fell the Doves.

One of the predominant themes on the new album seems to revolve around relationships and a place you can call home.

Yes. Sitting around at home, being by myself, I was thinking about that a lot, what we had inherited from home in childhood and in the past… the places that we come from. The song ‘Mineral Wells’ I wrote in 2009, but for some reason, I kept coming back to it. That was my initial thinking about the idea of home in song, and I was thinking a lot about Texas — Lubbock and Mineral Wells — and missing it, but also thinking about it as the product of a divorce and such. And then I thought about what home is now, with my husband. I never thought I’d be married with a child, but here I am. Then I was thinking about all the places we go which I love so much, and I was thinking we could live anywhere. Home for me is not a physical location. It’s really being around the people that I love.

As a child, you went back and forth between Lubbock and Mineral Wells because your parents had divorced. You were always in transit it seemed.

I was born in Mineral Wells and my dad’s family was from there. My mom went to Lubbock because it was pretty much as far as her car would drive her. It was six hours away. The two landscapes are completely different, but if I don’t claim both those places as home, somebody’s going to talk to me on my voicemail about it. (laughs)

That must have impacted your thoughts, that sense of instability you must have felt as a child when you had to go back and forth.

The thing that was most constant and stable was when I found the fiddle and learned to play music. That was kind of my stability. I wasn’t one to be whining about my situation. I’d rather my parents be happy when they’re not speaking together than when they are when they were together. A lot of pregnancy is anxiety and hormones, and there’s a lot of worry about bringing a child into the world. Are we really ready for this? Plus, there are so many unknowns abut the future that it really becomes wasted energy. I just got to a place to my mind where I felt we would be alright no matter what happened.

Having Jason away a lot must have been difficult too. There’s a song on this album called “When You’re Away.”

I still have many of his things to stare at.

But it still must have been kind of tough, no? Especially being pregnant.

It is. Well, that’s how a lot of those ideas came about. It’s funny the things you notice when somebody’s in thee house with you, you don’t recognize a lot of the house noises. And then when you’re by yourself, you wonder, what’s that noise in the kitchen. Oh, it’s just the ice maker. Or, what’s that noise coming through the house. It’s just the house settling. Maybe I was watching too many movies where there are home intruders.

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by Nate Burrell

When you have two people in the family who are both accomplished — who are both extremely talented — do you ever feel like you’re bring your work home with you? Is it hard to separate work from play?

I’ve been in relationships before with people who weren’t involved in music and they didn’t work out. Yes, we bring the work home with us, but I think it works out best that way. It gives us more things to talk about, more things to debate. Chord usage, lyrics and things like that. We bounce ideas off each other and try to help each other edit the best we can. It’s kind of nice, and I feel really lucky. We don’t get exhausted talking about it because it’s both of our passions. To have somebody that can criticize your work and having no intentions other than just wanting the best for you and your work is really nice. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know. It’s better to have someone who can tell you, you have a weak line or something, because you always want to do your best work.

Is it ever intimidating because you’re both so accomplished? Do you ever feel like you have to sneak away and write in private so you don’t feel overwhelmed?

It works in a couple of ways. A couple of the songs on the new album we wrote together, which was a different experience because we only tried that one other time. The songs “My Love (The Storm)” and “Pale Fire” were the ones we wrote together. It was new territory for us, and I was surprised we could do that together because we write very differently. But we know each other really well, and what we’re trying to say and the meanings we’re trying to express. It’s not intimidating, because when you’re writing a song and it’s really personal, we don’t show each other until it’s completely done, especially if it’s about the other person. I didn’t show Jason ‘You Are My Home’ until we were actually in the studio, because that wasn’t open for discussion. He showed me his song ‘Cover Me Up’ after he wrote it because he felt he had done it. But there are other songs he shows me as he’s writing them, because he’s just interested in knowing if the idea’s worth pursuing. We both do that for each other. He went to school for an English degree, so we both feel like we can back up our arguments pretty well. It’s not always easy to admit things that are of a personal nature, but I think that in the spirt of writing, it’s not a way to point things out in a way that’s passive/aggressive. It’s just something you feel, and those feelings are valid, so we don’t get on each other’s case about that. Writing and music is so cathartic. It can be difficult. If there’s a problem and it shows up in a song before you’ve talked about it, it’s like “Oh shit, maybe we should have talked about it before.” (laughs)

If you’ve had a hard day at the studio and something didn’t go well, does it seep over at home? Is it hard to separate?

Not really when you have the right producer. I started as a side person, so I was paid to do something and a lot of times I did what I was told to do. So that was fine. But once we were together a lot, dating and now married, when something didn’t go right and one person has an idea and the other disagrees, we usually just defer to the producer, and so that one person doesn’t feel like they need to win. We also pick our battles and we usually trust each other generally; We don’t nitpick every little thing. When things do go home with us, we play the track next week and see if we still feel the same way about it. Ultimately, it comes down to whose name is on the record because that person is ultimately in charge of it.

Do you write for the 400 Unit?

We each write our individual parts, but as far as songs, no. Only when Jason needs help, or has a question, then I’ll help him and I’ll tell him what I think. He doesn’t have to take my opinion. It’s just my opinion in the end. But I do like it when he does that for me, when he tells me something is weak or I can do better than that… or that maybe I used the wrong preposition. But mainly his name and his brand is his, and what I do is mine. We both write very differently. I have my woman’s perspective and he has his white guy perspective. (chuckles) In the end, whatever the argument is isn’t really an argument. If it’s my work, then thank you very much, I’m going to do it my way. If you have advice, I’ll take it as I please.

We’re not trying to serve up domestic discord.

Oh no, you’re not. We talk about all kinds of things all the time. The things we argue about most of the time are about stupid words. Our other argument is about Steely Dan. I can’t stand them and Jason likes them a lot. I had to hide those records.

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It’s nice that you can each pursue your individual career without getting in the way of the other.

It’s difficult logistically sometimes. Now there’s a little baby in the mix which makes it even more complicated.

How did you meet Jason?

I was playing in the Thrift Store Cowboys and we were playing in Athens Georgia and Jason was recording a couple of blocks away. So Jason just happened in there and I met him there. We had a bout six people in there to see us and Jason pulled up a folding chair to the center. So I met him and we started talking about music and became friends. Then he started getting interested in me, but I wasn’t having it (laughs). In 2011, we started exploring our love interest in each other. I don’t know how that happens but it does.

When you go out to tour on the new record, how will that work? Will Jason be with you?

No, no. I’m not in a place where I can afford a bus and he is, so the baby goes out with Jason. It’s not safe in a van for grownups, and it’s definitely not safe for a baby. She’s only ten months old and the idea of her having to ride in the van for eight to ten hours… that’s why I can’t have her riding with me. They drive in a bus during the night so she can sleep and then get up and play when they get there. That kind of touring life wouldn’t be good for her in a van.

Presumably she has a nanny.

Oh yes. We had tried handing her off to strangers, but that got weird. Roadies don’t know much about taking care of babies (laughs) We have a girl named Trish who takes care of her. This will be my first tour where I don’t have her with me, but I try to remember that her safety and comfort is the primary concern. Also, I don’t want to her to grow up thinking she has to give up her career when she becomes a mother. It’s fine if people want to do that, but I’m trying to lead by example. On the other hand, I don’t know what it’s going to be like going 21 days without seeing her.

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Are you touring simultaneously?

In September and October, we’re both going to be on the road separately, but at the same time. In November, the baby will be at home with him. He can do all the same things I can do. He can give her a bath, and he knows how to feed her. He’s awesome. He’s the one that changes all the diapers. He’s with the baby right now.

So you’re on hiatus from the band, at least for now?

Yes. The 400 Unit was the band and they were around before I was around. That’s the core. I’m not satisfied just playing other people’s music, even if its Jason’s. It’s a wonderful experience to play with people I admire, and I will sit in with people like that. But they have to be people I admire. I’ll sit with John Prine. I’ll sit in with Todd Snider. I’ll go out with Jason, but it’s more fulfilling for me to do my own work too. It would be easier if I gave it all up, but I can’t do that. I really like what I do, even if there’s only 50 other people that like it. I still like what I do. My goal for success was that when I went to a new town, I’d have 50 people listening to me. You have to start small.

Do you play solo, or are you touring with back-up musicians?

Both. The Ryan Adams dates are solo, just me opening with my tenor guitar. Which is strange because fiddle is my primary instrument. But it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. The rest of them are with a band — a drummer, a bassist and a guitar player and myself.

Your early efforts were with the Texas Playboys and then a band called the Thrift Store Cowboys. Tell us a little about those experiences.

I recorded with Thrift Store back in the day. They’re not together anymore. The Texas Playboys haven’t recorded anything in awhile, but I did record with (guitarist) Tommy Alsop in the past and I recorded with individuals from the Texas Playboys, but never the whole band together, The Playboys had over 400 people in the band throughout their career. They were a big band, and then they were a small band and they liked to fire people for things like not having the right shirt on.

Was that intimidating to join such a storied ensemble?

I was very young. I was fifteen when I started with them so my frontal lobe wasn’t developed enough to know what I was a part of. It would intimidate me now, but back then I was a kid, and I did what I was told. All my gear worked and I was easy to get along with and they kept me around. It was like having seven granddads. I tasted whiskey for the first time and learned a lot of fiddle stuff at the same time. The fiddle player would pull a bottle out of his shirt where he had it hidden. I didn’t like it then, but I appreciate it now.

What a credit to your talent that you were asked to join that band when you were only fifteen!

The first time I sang onstage someone had to hold my hand because I was so nervous.

But how did that even come about that they would ask you to join at age fifteen?

I was taking classical violin lessons at the time. The person I was learning from noticed I was getting a bit distracted and kind of bored and showed me this song “Spanish Two Step.” That was my first fiddle song and I told my mom I wanted to be a fiddle player. She said, “No , you’re going to be in an orchestra,” and I said, “No, I’m going to be a fiddle player.” So she said if I did my orchestra classes, she’d also let me be a fiddle player. And that was fine with me. So that kept me doing what I was supposed to do, and I got to learn both worlds. It’s kind of cool the way that happened.

So how did you come to the band’s attention.

We had started this little swing band that was made up of all these kids around my age, three part things on fiddles, ranch swing kind of stuff. I met Tommy Alsop around that time and we became good friends and I learned a lot of things from him. For the older guys, keeping the tradition alive was very important, and they would take time for anybody that asked about the music and the history. So as a way to keep it going they taught me stuff, and I kept going back for more. Soon they couldn’t get rid of me, this little kid always showing up at the front door wanting to learn fiddle tunes. So Tommy brought me into the fold.

What did your mom think about all this? Were you out touring with them?

Oh yes. Anywhere Tommy would go, I’d go with him. And she would go with me too. Once I turned seventeen, I got to play in the local bar scene in Lubbock. They let me in, but they put the X’s on my hand so I could sit in with whoever was playing. You have to practice improvising somewhere.

What made you want to play fiddle to begin with?

It goes back to that stability thing. I was with my dad, and we were at a pawnshop, and I saw a fiddle hanging on the wall, and I told him I had to have it. We weren’t a family of any means. I don’t even know how he had $60 to buy it. But he did. He took a chance. I immediately broke the strings — proof that I’m not a prodigy (laughs) — and so I took it back to Lubbock with me. So here my dad’s bought me this present and now my mom has to buy me lessons, but for me it became a constant thing, something that was never changing. While their lives and their relationships were always different, I still had this one thing that was always around.

 

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